Monday, October 20, 2014

The Heritage of Music

I ran across an article in Inside Higher Ed about a recent conference on the future of the liberal arts. It attracted a lot of comments from different perspectives. Here is the kernel of it:
SANTA FE – Part celebration, part intervention, a conference on the future of the liberal arts at St. John’s College last week offered high praise and harsh advice for an embattled tradition. Speakers on Friday said that while the future of the democracy depends on a broadly educated public, advocates need to return to a less politicized, more siloed vision of the liberal arts for them to survive.
By "siloed" (never ran into that as a verb before) I assume is meant "isolated in an ivory tower". Just as the standard journalistic narrative has become entirely about breaking down these academic enclaves and "accessibility" (as least as far as music is concerned), some people are starting to see that this is the problem. It is not stated nearly clearly enough in the article, but I think it boils down to this. For a couple of reasons having to do with the advance of critical theory and with the demands of doctoral specialization, higher education in the liberal arts has become unattractive.

As a doctoral student you have to somehow find a new take on a topic or a new special niche to write your dissertation on. As the basic assumptions these days come from critical theory, you need to shape your topic to something that will fit with that world view. Anything where you can do a gender, race, class analysis is welcomed. Anything else is problematic. Therefore, you do your dissertation on something like "Queering the Harmony: Secondary Dominants in Tchaikovsky". Ok, I just made that up. In any case, finding something where you can boldly knock some dead white male off his pedestal is a surefire formula for success.

Then you get a job in a university and have to start teaching. So you just continue along your path and put together seminars where you continue to boldly knock dead white males off their pedestals. This is sort-of ok for graduate seminars, but the same approach is less appropriate if you need to teach a class to engineering students in music appreciation. Of course, you aren't allowed to call it "music appreciation", but that's really what it is.

What you should be doing, not only in the class for engineering students, but also for your music students, is introducing your students to the heritage of Western Music. I am talking about someone teaching in a school in Western Europe or North America, elsewhere other curricula might be appropriate. So you should be introducing your students, at an appropriate level of complexity, to a whole bunch of dead, white males like Bach, Beethoven and all those other guys. And you should do so with an attitude of respect, not a kind of sneering pleasure in uncovering their feet of clay, if they have any. You have one job: transmission of the stream of culture of Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, no-one ever says this, but perhaps conferences like this one are starting to.

I think that the core of the problem is getting over the idea of aesthetic relativity. If the music of Bach and Beethoven is not objectively better than the music of Justin Bieber and Beyonce, then why bother with it, except as grist for your mill, showing the mechanisms of oppression and power relationships?

Now let's listen to some Tchaikovsky!

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